IT WAS BACK in the 1930s that someone said Joe Louis was "a credit to his race." How condescending can you get? Pretty condescending. At least the remark about Joe Louis was probably meant well. On the other hand, Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark's (D-Calif.) description of Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan the other day as "a disgrace to his race" was malicious and intended to be belittling. As is the case, nowadays anyway, this sort of attack usually ends up causing more harm to the perpetrator than the intended victim.

That Rep. Stark finally got around to making an inadequate semi-apology -- ". . . I blew it" -- after refusing Dr. Sullivan's request for an apology a day earlier, says a little something for the congressman, but not much. What does speak volumes, however, is the role he arrogated to himself as determiner of what should be the proper views for blacks to have on such matters as abortion, national health insurance, President Bush, John Sununu and who knows what all else.

While Mr. Stark was busy drumming Dr. Sullivan out of the ranks of the good blacks, he also took the time to pronounce on the secretary as a physician, calling him "a disgrace to his profession." Dr. Sullivan needs no defense from us or anybody else on the handling of his job. We do think, however, that some other Americans around the country might have a bone to pick with Mr. Stark. Since joining the Bush administration, Dr. Sullivan has been honored with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Equal Justice Award, the Outstanding Contribution to Medicine Award given by the National Medical Association and the Black Women's Political Action Forum Humanitarian Award; he has been feted by the United Negro College Fund and the American Lung Association, to name just a couple. But what do they know about these things? Right, congressman?